Titan's Penis: Why are the French flocking in thousands to see (and smell) this plant?

Emma Townshend investigates our fascination with bizarre horticulture

Imagine leaving a steak for a week in a plastic bag, somewhere nice and warm to get it really whiffy, and then charging people to sniff it. That has been the basic commercial premise at Nantes' Jardin des Plantes this week, where tourists are being diverted from the other pleasures of this beautiful Breton seaside town (giant wooden elephants, conceptual art trails, a slightly bonkers marine-themed three-storey merry-go-round) to sample the delights of the world's stinkiest plant, the Titan arum, Amorphophallus titanum, aka Titan's Penis.

It's not completely clear why visitors to botanic gardens will come in their thousands just to experience a plant giving off a really bad smell, but come they definitely will. UK Titan arums usually bloom only once in around a dozen years. They have flowered in recent years at Kew, Cambridge and the Eden Project, to much publicity, but this one's nevertheless wowing France. It's at least partly because the pong is so fleeting: you have 48 hours, at most, to find your way to Brittany. All making for a fairly unbuyable experience.

It's also spectacular. The flower has the air of a poor-quality baddie in a 1970s science-fiction TV show about triffids, with an outer ruffle of sickly carnivorous green, fading into bloodstain red; the smell arising from a tall prong rising up out of the middle, apparently coated in pale yellow powder. The proud possessor of the title of "biggest inflorescence of any flower on earth", it doesn't look like a real plant at all. But its visual qualities pale into insignificance besides its olfactory ones: its lurid, unmistakable and disgusting reek.

Yet when you first enter a glasshouse and breathe in the aroma you might be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed. "It's not actually that bad," you hear the concerned murmurs. But Amorphophallus sends out its fragrance (if we can call it that) in a series of timed pulses, its surface heating up, by a process called thermogenesis, to almost 40C, ensuring that the scent floats out on to the air beautifully. What you thought was "not that bad" is actually just the plant taking a time-out. And now, as another genuine burst of grossness is released, the comments change. "Oh wow, that really is bad," you will now hear people saying.

Even its devoted keepers admit that it smells revolting. And like a bunch of unlucky wine-tasters, visitors do their best to describe the indescribable: "A bit like a dead animal that you find down the garden with flies on it," was one poetic effort that I wrote down the last time Kew had one in flower. But there's a logic to the badness: the Titan arum is pollinated by flies, so smelling just like decomposing dead meat turns out to be a good thing.

Flies aside, what's the Titan arum's crowd-pulling secret? It takes a long time to flower, yes – but a Mexican agave will take longer, as commemorated in Victoria Williams' haunting "Century Plant", a country-and-western hymn to these denizens of America's South-western deserts (and to all life's late starters). Rarity, perhaps? Like the Dragon Leaf that flowered in April this year at Wakehurst, Kew's country sister garden, despite being "notoriously difficult" to grow, the Titan arum is endangered in its homeland, the Sumatra rainforests, now much-logged, and is rarely seen in the wild.

But we are deeply attracted to the disgusting, to the bizarre, to the freakish, in plants as elsewhere. People want to smell the arum, as one visitor put it, "just to see how bad it is". And in an age of increasing financial pressure, botanic gardens have been forced to become savvier about producing attractions. Outside the short but profitable summer holidays, many are turning to sheer revulsion as a way to boost visitor figures. Eden posts timelapse images of its Titan arums flowering on the internet, as Nantes has, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, launches a festival of deadly and disgusting plants this autumn, just in time for half-term and Halloween. With a "Poison Quest" and a display of particularly notorious plants, there should be plenty to disgust the entire family.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss